Wives of officers of the male-dominated armed forces have special status. There are associations of officers’ wives in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and they usually engage in social services that are essentially aimed at helping the families of jawans, sailors and airmen. Spouses of service chiefs and heads of operational commands also get opportunities to travel in military aircraft with their husbands, and separate programmes are drawn up while the husbands are away doing military work.
The wives also wield unusual powers of protest, as the defence ministry is once again realising. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, under pressure from elected civilian representatives including MPs, MLAs and cantonment board members, had announced the opening up of roads for all traffic in the country’s cantonments, which are under the control of the Army. These British-era enclaves, which house the operational, residential and recreational complexes of the Army, were once on the outskirts of 62 cities, including Delhi, Lucknow, Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata. But, now, the cities encircle them.
Like gated colonies in big cities, the cantonments have restricted access to non-residents and non-defence personnel. The local governments have been demanding that the roads in cantonments be like any other public road, and that the Army could set up checkpoints, but allow public access. Sitaraman saw merit in the argument, and said the roads will be free.
But then, the minister had not considered the views of the most powerful, unrecognised trade union in the country—that of Army wives. They signed petitions, apparently prepared by senior officers, drawing attention to the danger of allowing the civilian tide to flow through high-security zones. They recalled the horror of terrorist strikes on Army and Air Force complexes in north India, and cited how high-security installations function from cantonments.
In the mid-1990s, the wives of Air Force officers had held sit-ins outside Air Force stations across the country, and had even prevented a commander from entering the station in Chandigarh. They were protesting anomalies in the Fifth Pay Commission, while their husbands were on duty inside. Earlier, when Army officers were arrested by the military intelligence in the Samba spy case, it was the wives who staged a sit-in in Delhi against the high-handed manner in which their loved ones were dealt with.
The rules governing the three services prohibit trade union activities, and appeals can only go through “proper channels”. But, wives are not bound by military discipline, and can bring familial pressure on the authorities. Sitharaman has found some merit in the security concerns raised by the Army wives, and a review of her decision is now on.